Watching Someone Die
Years ago, my husband and I went to be with a close friend as she sat at her mother's deathbed. It was there that I learned that, when we are in the presence of someone near death, Jewish tradition gives us guidelines for how to behave.
The Hebrew word goses (go-sayse) describes a person on the edge of death. There is a Talmudic tradition that the Divine Presence, known in Hebrew as the Shechinah, rests at the head of a person just before they pass into death. This Divine Presence requires us to behave with respect and honor and not in a casual manner.
When I was a young teen, my paternal grandmother passed away. We were given the option, just before the funeral, to spend a few moments alone with her body. I recall being terrified of seeing a dead body. I did not go into the room that held her coffin. Until recently, I did everything I could to avoid seeing a dead body, in the news and also in life.
This was true until last summer, when I watched someone die.
My husband’s father, a Holocaust survivor with a huge public persona in his modest Jewish community in America, had been declining for years. My husband flew to America many times to help support his sister, who was the primary caretaker of their elderly parents until first one, then the other, passed away.
Last August, we were told that the time had come to fly to his bedside. We arrived in their small New England city and, after nearly 24 hours of travel, we were taken directly to his room. The Talmud records King Hezekiah saying: "Even if a sharp sword is pressing on your neck, don't despair of pleading for God's mercy." Nevertheless, it was clear that we were in the presence of a man in the final days or hours of life.
I have since learned that the custom is not to eat or drink in front of a goses. And although I did recite chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) as I sat in the room, I didn’t know that tradition suggests chapters 23, 91, 103, 121,130 and 139 for just such a moment.
Families are sometimes advised to tell stories, sing familiar songs and even play music in the room. These are said to help bring comfort to the person who is dying. Long before we arrived at his side, my sister-in-law played recordings of the weekly Torah portion for my father-in-law using the PocketTorah app on her phone. This was especially significant because, in his role as Ritual Director in a large Conservative synagogue, my father-in-law taught hundreds of children and adults how to chant Torah. She commented that, "Although he was already in a non-responsive state, his eyes moved side-to-side behind his lids and his lips were moving. It was beautiful."
I wish I could say that I was aware of the presence of the Shechinah in those moments. I can say that we were very careful to speak as if he could understand everything we were saying.
There were a few family members in the room during those final moments, including my sister-in-law, my husband, our daughter and me. Several nurses, who had cared for my father-in-law during his final illness, came in the room to share these difficult emotional moments with the family.
Although we can’t be sure, we like to think that my father-in-law somehow knew that my husband and I were on our way to him from Israel and that he waited for us to arrive before taking his last breath. We also like to think that our presence brought comfort to him in his final moments in this world, even though he was no longer able to speak.
As is customary, my husband recited Vidui, the Jewish death bed prayer of repentance on his father’s behalf. This prayer acknowledges that the goses is in the transitional state between life in this world and the Next World.
In the last moments of life, a goses often emits a rattling sound accompanied by a slowing of the breathing. We watched my father-in-law’s chest closely, monitoring his final breaths.
The Talmud compares an easy death with removing a hair from milk. And that’s how it seemed to me. My father-in-law’s transition from one state to another was not jarring to witness. It was as smooth as removing a single hair from a bowl of milk. Even so, tearful grief quickly came to those who loved him best.
Just as a pregnant woman in the throes of childbirth may not be able to fully grasp the holiness of the moment of birth, there was a sacredness to those moments that I might not have fully appreciated at the time.
Looking back, I see that watching someone you love die is less scary than I feared. It’s actually an awe-inspiring opportunity to appreciate the godliness imbued in all life, and also in its ceasing.
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